Finals Edition: Brown: Curricular abandonment of worldwide genocides catastrophic to student development

By Simon Brown / Columnist

At the end of every November, Americans gather to celebrate a moment from their national memory: a communal feast that united Native Americans and European settlers during the earliest days of colonization. Although this event does not appear in history text books and the ocurrence of a similar event is debateable, it does not hinder the celebration that takes place.

Earlier this November, Germans and Austrians also gathered to remember a very real episode in their history, the 75th anniversary of “Kristallnacht,” or the “Night of Broken Glass,” during which Jews were subjected to street violence, and tens of thousands were corralled into concentration camps.

This dark moment in human history, however, will go unremembered by millions of young Americans due to an unacceptable poverty in our public-school history curricula.

For Pennsylvania schools, this systemic problem has come into focus on one historical subject, the Holocaust  — during which fascist European nations repressed and systematically exterminated 11 million Jews, Roma, homosexuals, political dissidents and countless other minorities between 1933 and 1945.

A bill currently under consideration before the Pennsylvania Senate aims to symbolically “allow” public schools in Pennsylvania to “offer instruction in the Holocaust, other forms of genocide and human-rights violations.” This gesture would only officially recommend that schools educate students on these subjects, after an amendment that would mandate the subject was narrowly defeated before the House.

That ignorance is not unique to the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis in world history. Rather, it is an indication of the curricular abandonment of history and social studies in general by education administrators and policy makers. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reported in 2010 that only 12 percent of students scored “proficient” in U.S. history. Perhaps more indicative is the total absence of world history from that federal assessment program.

When under-resourced schools face the financial chopping block based exclusively on their students’ scores in reading and math, it’s little wonder that administrators make less and less time for the now “extra-curricular” social studies.

But even for Pennsylvania students, such as myself, who did benefit from talented teachers and a close attention to the Holocaust, the subject remains painfully mistaught. To illustrate the superficiality of our standard treatment of the event, I will recount my own education on the subject. The treatment of the events usually conformed to this recognizable narrative: “In 1933, Adolf Hitler became the leader of Germany by his very persuasive speaking. He detested Jews, and he convinced the Germans to strip Jews of their rights and send them to concentration camps. By 1945, 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, had been massacred.”

This account provides none of the context that could express the present-day urgency of the message. The narrative focuses on individuals and particulars, rather than societies and mentalities, thereby emphasizing the genocide’s historical distance and “uniqueness.” This retelling denies students not only of a rich understanding of the material, but also of an opportunity to ponder the lingering echoes of the Holocaust in the realities of present-day racism, intolerance and scapegoating.

Rather, if educators could focus on the systemic social conditions that permitted the genocide, they could draw connections to the world in which their students live. If they would teach that anti-Semitism had pervaded Europe for over a millennium and had produced massacres and resettlements long before the Holocaust, then it would force students to consider the prejudices that have plagued U.S. history since its inception.

If they could teach that the Nazis massacred a whole range of minorities, and not only the Jewish population upon which curricula usually focuses, they would enable discussion of the continuing, state-sponsored oppression of minority groups in the present day — whether it manifests in France’s expulsion of Romani people in 2010 or in Russia’s ever-increasing laws discriminating against the country’s LGBTQ community.

Finally, if they could teach that not all Germans actively participated in the Holocaust and some resisted it, then they could bring students to question their own obligations toward minorities and the oppressed. Do we, as citizens, have obligations to actively resist an unjust government? Does that obligation span across borders? These are the pressing questions that not only can educate students, but can also engage them.

Such a rich curriculum could be available for any student, but it would take considerable time to teach, and it would spark critical thinking and reflection from its students. Neither of these components, however, fit into the prevailing educational regimen administered through Harrisburg, Pa.

The state government cannot cut funding, enforce standards that value only math and language arts and then mandate that schools teach select events to mask students’ embarrassing under-education in history. It will require the state to mandate more historical education across the board and provide the money for a rich, engaging curriculum.

These curricula can give students the critical tools to better understand the causes and effects of genocide — something this country collectively needs. And if you’d like proof that history curricula needs changed, remember what holiday we celebrate on the last Thursday of every November.

Write Simon at [email protected].